After a number of years of good returns, it is bad news for the Okanagan sockeye run this year.
“The run is almost done for sockeye coming in. At the last dam, Wells, where all the Okanagan fish go through and nothing else, we have about 38,000 fish,” said Richard Bussanich, a senior fisheries biologist with the Okanagan Nation Alliance fisheries department.
“It’s tracking about 30 per cent of the 10-year average right now. Typically, we would see about 150 to 250,000 fish at Wells. This year, we are seeking a fraction of that.”
Bussanich said the same problem is occurring with runs all along the west coast.
“It’s not just Okanagan, it’s coast-wide, right from California to the Nass river,” he said. “Stocks through are a fraction of their historic strength.”
With the problem showing up universally, Bussanich said it indicates a problem in the marine portion of the salmon lifecycle.
“If it was a freshwater issue, you would see some stocks doing well and other stocks not doing so well,” said Bussanich. “This run, unfortunately, the small fish going out and the adults that made their way out to sea, ended up migrating though what we would call poor salmon conditions in the fresh water and marine. They’re getting a double whammy.
“The little guys probably got hit pretty good, and when they went out to sea, they got hit with what is now confirmed as an El Niño.”
Bussanich said there has been concern over the past few years, but ocean scientists are now coming to a consensus there has been a “regime change” in the marine environment.
“There is enough weight of evidence out there, from lack of catching juveniles to poor adults catches that something is going on in the marine environment,” he said.
The ONA is predicting just shy of 25,000 salmon will make it through to Osoyoos and Skaha this year.
“That will meet our minimum escapements,” said Bussanich. “It’s a weaker run and we are going to continue with our hatchery program. This is one of the reasons for the hatchery program to help mitigate in years like this.”
Low returns also mean recreational fisheries are unlikely this year. Bussanich said they haven’t been calling for any, and there is only minor food fishing going on by Okanagan Nation communities.
The question, Bussanich said, is whether the sockeye will rebound as they did in the late 90s, or is the salmon run on a new course? Being optimistic, he said if the sockeye are given a chance, the stock will rebound again.
“Because we have seen this stock come back so vigorously, there’s hope this stock will come back again,” said Bussanich.
In the meantime, the ONA Fisheries Department, one of the largest in B.C., will continue its restoration, conservation and protection mandate, noting that the ONA administers $3.5 million for a variety of environmental programs to enhance quality of life and well being in the valley.
“We are not lessening the effort. We continue to work with all the agencies, a variety of NGOs and good volunteers throughout the valley. There is a lot of grassroots stuff that is happening here,” said Bussanich. “We are not going anywhere. The Okanagan is rich in stewardship and we should be very proud of that.“